The German Society of Pennsylvania, founded in 1764, directed its early efforts to assist new German immigrants, especially those forced into indentured servitude when they were unable to pay their sea fare. By introducing legislation to the Pennsylvania assembly, the Society helped improve ship and arrival conditions, as well as provide medical care, legal counsel, interpreters, and educational opportunities. Throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries, the Society was very visible in the German community, boasting its membership into the thousands. In 1888, the Society built its own Renaissance Revival headquarters, complete with a large assembly hall, library, and archives, on Spring Garden Street, in the heart of a traditional German neighborhood. The Society thus became the cornerstone of a thriving German community in Philadelphia. In the 20th century, the Society’s scope and prominence was affected by the two World Wars, which created suspicion and criticism of Germanic culture. That suspicion and government scrutiny played a role in the dwindling membership of the Society, which then channeled its relief activities through a Quaker-based aid society. In the second half of the century, the neighborhood was also changing, as it became predominantly African-American, rather than German, and more impoverished. But the Society pressed forward, continuing its educational and cultural programs. In the past twenty years, the Society has seen the resurgence of the neighborhood. Its leadership has directed the organization to embark on new projects. Today, the Society building represents the last surviving monumental record of the German presence in Philadelphia.
Research: Sarah L. Hunter
Site Photos: Joseph E.B. Elliott
The installation of Stan Douglas’ film investigates the intersection of history and memory as witnessed against the backdrop of post–Cold War Germany. Projected as two separate but intersecting videos showing a plot of land near Potsdam, on which the poor could grow food, the film contemplates temporality and the transformative effects of history. Here it is shown at the German Society of Philadelphia, an organization that long ago helped German Americans arriving in this country as indentured servants.
Co-Producer: Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia
Support for development and planning of this project has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative.
Stan Douglas is an African-Canadian Installation artist based in Vancouver, British Columbia. His work has been exhibited internationally, including Documenta IX, 1992, Documenta X, 1997, Documenta XI, 2002 and he has represented Canada at Venice Biennale in 1990, 2001 and 2004. Douglas’ film and video installations, photography and work in television frequently touch on the history of literature, cinema and music, while examining the “failed utopia” of modernism and obsolete technologies. Art collector Friedrich Christian Flick, in the forward to the Stan Douglas monograph published by Friedrich Christian Flick Collection, describes Douglas as “a critical analysis of our social reality. Samuel Beckett and Marcel Proust, E.T.A. Hoffmann and the Brothers Grimm, blues and free jazz, television and Hollywood, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud haunt the uncanny montages of the Canadian artist.”